Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive – from the Book Passed and Present – an Interview with Allison Gilbert
Today I have the pleasure of introducing you to Allison Gilbert’s new book, Passed and Present, about celebrating the lives of relatives we’ve lost. Enter our giveaway of the book here!
Remembering loved ones who have passed away is a unique kind of challenge. We want to celebrate their lives, yet sometimes sharing memories can be difficult. We may wonder if our family members (children, teens, etc.) are even interested. As family historians, we have many stories of loved ones long past that we’d like to tell. How do we do this in our everyday lives? Allison Gilbert answers this question with 85 simple ideas called “Forget Me Nots” for keeping memories of loved ones alive. The ideas presented in her book are innovative yet intuitive – they feel just right. She asserts that the act of remembering can bring joy, positivity and family unity all year round. Her ideas are especially relevant to those who have undertaken the role of “memory keeper” within their families. Family historians, who delight in remembering and honoring loved ones in their past, will delight in this book.
Passed and Present comes out April 12! (This is an affiliate link. If you click the link and make a purchase, we receive a small commission but this doesn’t change the price of the item.)
Today, I will be sharing the interview I had with Allison last week about Passed and Present. A little bit about Allison from her website –
“Allison Gilbert has covered nearly every major news story in the last 20 years — including 9/11, when she was on the job and nearly killed by falling debris. An Emmy award-winning, multi-platform journalist, Allison has been honored by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the Associated Press, and the Society of Professional Journalists. … Allison is author of Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children (Hyperion), a follow-up to her critically acclaimed book Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents. She is also co-editor of Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalists Report September 11, a book that was turned into a documentary by the U.S. State Department and distributed to embassies and consulates around the world. … Using the illness and death of her own parents as a prism to explore individual crisis and growth, she has spoken to diverse groups such as Time Warner, NAFE (National Association for Female Executives), 92Y, the JCC in Manhattan, Women’s Enterprise Development Center Inc., Gilda’s Club, and the Cancer Support Community.”
In my interview with Allison, we talked about some of the concepts from her chapters on repurposing items that we’ve inherited and remembering all year long, not just at holidays.
In the Illustrator’s Note, Jennifer Orkin Lewis commented that “creating brings joy.” Repurpose with a Purpose, the first section of Passed and Present, is all about this idea. Allison says, “the value of the project is in the creating as much as what you create.” In my interview with Allison I asked her about this concept.
Nicole – When did you first realize that creating brought you joy after the loss of your parents?
Allison – I would say it was a slow build, and not one hundred percent around active creating. I definitely admit that I am no Martha Stewart! I find my particular role in this book, “Passed and Present,” to be a tour guide of opportunity. Either you can execute these ideas yourself because you are creative or handy, but even if you aren’t, like me, I’ve introduced you to people who are, who can help you do those things more quickly and more effortlessly because you are taken in by their much more credentialed hands. In the end, you get what you want – which is a new opportunity for remembering a loved one – which is really what the whole book is about.
Nicole – I really liked how you said that death makes us feel out of control, and on the flip side, creation can make us feel more empowered. What are your thoughts on the antidote for that out of control feeling?
Allison – The entire backbone of the book is proactivity. Proactivity is critical for moving forward in a very uplifted and empowered way to feel stronger and regain the control that loss brings. One of those ideas is being creative, but another idea is about just taking the reins of your own journey and whether or not that’s in cooking or listening to music, or going for a walk in nature, or in the case of what we’re talking about here, in creating, it’s really important to feel that you have control.
In creating, you first have to have the mindset to do. The “to do” piece is that you are no longer reliant on other people to do. When loss first happens, many of us are the recipients of support. People attend the funeral, the wake, the shiva, they cook you food, hold your hand, and call you. You are a benefit of that initial “triage.” What my book is really about is when that triage is gone. And what we all know, who have gone through loss, is that just because that immediate sense of support is no longer, it doesn’t mean that you as a person who is grieving no longer miss that person.
Maybe you miss that person more because now you’re grieving, in some cases, in isolation. The creativity piece is a representation of the change of mindset – that you no longer can be passive, you no longer can be only the recipient of support, you must now also take control. Making a decision, choosing to be active, and making those choices to do anyone of these “Forget Me Nots” put you in a position of becoming closer to the person you miss most.
Sharing Memories and Stories
In part 3, “Not Just Holidays,” Allison shares ideas for remembering all year long. She suggests carefully choosing stories about our loved ones to tell to our children at bedtime. In this way, we can shape the way our loved ones are remembered. This idea really resonated with me after reading Bruce Feiler’s work, including his 2013 NY Times Article The Stories that Bind Us. In this article, he shared a study showing that children who know more about their family’s ups and downs, they are better able to overcome hardships. I asked Allison to share more about how she has done this with her children.
Nicole – You talk a little in the book about your children and how you share memories with them. What are some of the benefits you’ve found from talking about memories of your parents and grandparents? Did it bring you closer as a family?
Allison – There are multiple benefits. My choice to be proactive helps me in the ways we’ve already discussed. It helps my children understand and appreciate people who are very important to who they are.
It’s really in the same as when genealogists work through family trees. Researching where we come from makes us feel more connected, stronger, and empowered – like we know who we are in a greater, deeper way – and makes us move forward in our lives in a more purposeful way.
I find that to be similar for my children. I started this when they were young because my losses happened before they were born and when they were young. Now I have teenagers, so the tools at my disposal have shifted accordingly. What worked back then, which may involve glitter and sparkles and paint, may not be what I do now. Now those tools might be social media or something with technology. Sometimes it literally involves packing bags and going on a vacation to explore certain streets and locations that I feel they should be aware of, because that’s a part of who they are and a part of who their loved ones were. I think the toolbox expands with how old your children are, and it’s definitely made us closer. They feel a richer connection not just to me and what’s important to me and the relatives that I knew and loved, but by extension it’s important to them because they’re part of the richer fabric of our entire family.
Clutter vs. Valuable “Leavings”
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of “A Midwife’s Tale,” encouraged listeners at her University of Utah talk in March to consider donating the “stuff” of their lives and their mother’s and grandmother’s lives to an archive so that future historians can better understand them. She talked about leavings – what is left behind from a person’s life. Ulrich cautioned that though items may look useless, don’t throw them out. History becomes history as things change. Ulrich asked, “what is in your home that you could donate to a 20th century archive?” She explained that we have no idea what the next generation will care about.
Allison gives a similar idea in Forget Me Not #59 – donate items to a museum. This ensures that a person will not be forgotten without us having to hang on to all their things. I asked Allison to expand on this idea of inheriting items that we don’t know what to do with.
Nicole – In “Passed and Present,” you talk about decluttering and that it’s okay to get rid of things you’ve inherited. When you first experienced the loss of your mom and dad, how did you go through their items and decide what to donate and what to keep?
Allison – At first I had trouble giving anything away. It’s very hard because it feels so permanent, and it is. Once you give it away, there’s really no getting it back. I felt really paralyzed at first to part with much, particularly with my mom who died when I was much younger.
There were certainly the piles that were obvious, but there were also several piles of things that were in that murky area. A friend told me once that it’s okay to do things in stages. It’s not now or never. You can have a “not quite sure” pile. You can pack it up and deal with it later. Over time, you can get rid of it, donate it, give it to someone else, or keep it longer.
Decluttering leads to a greater appreciation of the objects that you decide to keep. You can showcase a few things that are of high importance to you. That leads to conversations, which is critical. It’s not just having a photograph to use in a nontraditional way, but by doing so, you’re eliciting conversation and that leads to memories being enforced.
The “Repurpose With Purpose” chapter is empowering because you’re moving forward with an object that makes your current life happy; you’re not just inheriting and using objects that perhaps don’t bring you pleasure. The goal of this section is to actually choose those objects which are sentimental, truly essential to your connection with your loved one, and give yourself permission to tweak their current state and run with it. This will allow you to build a stronger tie to your loved one in a way that honors who you are and not just who they are. This is important for you moving forward in the present and still having a relationship with the person from the past.
Nicole – Can you tell us more about your Forget Me Not idea to donate items of your loved one to a museum or historical society.
Allison – This idea does two things. First, it gives you another place to put things that you don’t what to do with. They may feel burdensome. Once heirlooms, papers, and belongings of loved ones just feel like clutter, they can no longer bring you joy or serve the purpose of helping you keep their memory alive. By choosing to have a meaningful place to put those items, and to know that they’re going to be cherished, and to know that in perpetuity they will help tell a story, really gives you the feeling that it’s okay to let go. In some ways it might be even better to let go because in doing so, your loved ones’ stories can impact and affect even more people. You’re keeping their memory alive.
Where to Start
Nicole – My grandmother is grieving the loss of her husband, my grandfather. For someone still in the early grief stage, what “Forget Me Not” project would you recommend starting with?
Allison – I think the first thing to do is Forget Me Not #64, “Give Memories 100 Percent,” where you devote an entire day to remembering your loved one.
At the earliest stages in your loss, investing in grief and not allowing distractions is a beautiful and powerful notion.
Looking back, and giving yourself permission to do so, without interruption, is all about self-care. Giving yourself time to just be and exist with your feelings is the ultimate proclamation that you are important and that your feelings are important. To give those feelings the ability to come and go all day – and not quickly stop crying and move on and pretend all is okay – but to give yourself a full breadth of experience – of crying, of being in that place where you’re not pulled in a million directions, but only invested in what this relationship still means to you – is a phenomenal thing to do when loss is fresh and new.
The other thing it does is set you in motion for being proactive. Once you give yourself a day of uninterrupted time to look at pictures, go through albums, listen to music, eat certain foods, read old letters, and do all the things that feel right, you can think about if you’re ready for the next step – maybe doing another Forget Me Not. This is your journey, and no one’s going to do it for you. By you deciding what comes next, you are in control, wresting back some of that upheaval in your life. That’s the point that we feel most connected to our loved ones, because we can focus on all that was good and all that we still love and still miss. Then we can move forward in our own lives in a very uplifting, happy, and empowered way.
This was the end of my interview with Allison, but there are so many other ideas from her book that I loved! Here are some of them:
Digitize family recipes and make them an indelible part of your life. In this Forget Me Not, Allison talks about how food represents continuity between generations, nourishes, and helps us remember.
Be creative with video. In this Forget Me Not, Allison tells about an experience she had sharing memories of her parents with her teen daughter while using the Flipagram app to make a video. Using a fun technology allowed them to take the photos out of their under-appreciated context, a photo album, and share them through social media. This Forget Me Not reminded me of the Make Family History presentation I went to at RootsTech. MakeFamilyHistory.org is a website created by a team of filmmakers, teachers, and family historians. The website gives ideas for the next generation to be involved in family history by using the technology they love.
Create a memory magnet. Another Forget Me Not that involves using photos is to create a magnet with a loved ones photograph and keep it on the fridge where it can serve as a daily reminder of the loved one you want to remember.
Create a mirror mosaic. In her Forget Me Not “Reconsider your reflection,” Allison suggests creating a mirror with ancestor photos around the edges. When you look in the mirror, you’ll be adding your reflection to a personal and stirring mosaic of faces.
Leave photo albums on the table. Allison suggests that for children to ask about family photos, it helps to involve serendipity. Leaving a photo album open on the table and lingering nearby to answer any questions that might come up when they see it creates a moment of remembering and storytelling.
Repurpose items into holiday decorations. Allison shared the idea to change her grandmother’s figurines into Halloween decorations. Now whenever they decorate with them, Allison can share memories of her grandmother’s grit and resilience, qualities she hopes her children will adopt.
Next week, my mother (Diana) will share a review of Passed and Present and some of her favorite Forget Me Nots that helped her after the death of her father.
In October, she’ll be speaking at the Association of Personal Historians Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.
Check out Allison’s books here:
(These are affiliate links. If you click the link and make a purchase, we receive a small commission but this doesn’t change the price of the item.)